The Australian newspaper’s campaign against the Victorian Office of Police Integrity is hotting up again, spurred in part by the release of a book by Stephen Linnell, the disgraced former head of Victoria Police’s media unit.

Those who read The Australian’s editorial today will have noticed a swipe at me, Media Watch and other critics of The Oz’s line on these matters. What is not reported is the back story to its campaign on matters murky and Victorian is about to lurch in to a new phase, with the case against Simon Justin Artz, the Victorian policeman accused of being the source for reporter Cameron Stewart’s scoop of August last year, listed to begin in the Melbourne Magistrates Court tomorrow.

Stewart will be a key witness, having been forced to appear by the Office of Police Integrity. I understand Robert Richter has been approached to represent the newspaper.

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As well as this, a report by the agency charged with combating corruption in the Australian Federal Police is soon to be released. That report examines whether Stewart’s dealings with the Feds amounted to a corrupt transaction by the cops. All that is delaying it going to the minister is the present federal caretaker arrangements.

The Stewart scoop — publishing details of an anti-terrorism raid on the very day that raids were conducted and arrests made — was the core event that led to the tangled and ugly campaign that has followed.

This has now become one of those difficult stories, with so many twists and turns, and so many people vigorously asserting right on their side, that only the afficianados and those directly affected are following the detail. But it is important because it concerns corruption in Victoria, at a time when the state is at a tipping point in its patchy efforts to confront the problem. It also concerns media integrity, and the rights and wrongs of campaigning journalism.

So, given that the whole affair is set for a fresh airing, and given that The Australian’s record suggests it cannot be trusted to be impartial on the matter, let’s backtrack and try to follow the threads.

Stewart’s scoop, in which he published information on the anti-terrorism Operation Neath, grew from information he received from a source — allegedly Artz. He then took that information to the Australian Federal Police and, in return for undertakings to delay publication, received detailed briefings.

Exactly what the nature of the deal was, and whether The Australian did nor did not breach it by allowing some editions of the newspaper to be available in Melbourne before the raid, is the subject of dispute and investigation. Suffice to say Victoria Police was furious that Stewart’s story was published when it was.

Naturally, an investigation into the source of Stewart’s information began immediately, conducted jointly between the Office of Police Integrity and its federal counterpart, the Australian Commission of Law Enforcement Integrity. The resulting report was shown in draft form to The Australian this March as part of the normal processes of administrative law. It so infuriated the paper’s editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell, that he wrote to the Director of the OPI, Michael Strong, saying:

“I assure you The Australian newspaper will use every journalistic and legal measure available to pursue what can only be described as an outrageous fabrication … should our concerns not be addressed.”

And that is exactly what happened. The Australian took action in the Federal Court to have the report suppressed and all evidence — including an interview between Stewart and the OPI which is now regarded as key evidence against Artz — thrown out and permanently suppressed.

Meanwhile reporter Hedley Thomas was sooled on to the case, and began writing stories strongly crtitical of the OPI and Police Commissioner Simon Overland. To begin with, they were legitimate stories, whatever the paper’s motivation and emphasis.

But as the Federal Court case hotted up they veered in a way that I regard as off course, uncritically reporting the line taken by disgraced former Assistant Commissioner Noel Ashby and other police with dubious backgrounds.

The stories also contain aspersions on the work of The Age’s chief investigative reporter, Nick McKenzie — the same one whose work on the Securency scandal has made headlines, and whose investigation into organised crime was screened on Four Corners last night, as part of a joint operation with The Age. The Australian’s editorial today continues this attack. Nasty stuff.

The Federal Court action was settled, but not before ACLEI had, as the judge in the case put it, “tapped the mat” in withdrawing its original report, and commencing to write its own separate report. I am told that this report is now all but completed. We can expect its release as soon as we have a government that can release it.

Meanwhile, the line taken by The Australian is the same as that taken by Stephen Linnell. It is the only account that leaves Linnell and Ashby with a shred of honour. The assertion is that the charges Linnell and Ashby faced were part of factional wars in the Victoria Police, in which the corruption watchdog, the Office of Police Integrity, is improperly playing favourites on the side of Commissioner Simon Overland.

Nobody who knows the history would assert that the OPI is problem free. Many people, myself included, think we need a Royal Commission and that the recently announced new anti-corruption body is unlikely to be up to the task of getting to grips with an ugly corruption problem.

It should also be said that Thomas, a reporter with a proud record, is absolutely sincere in his belief that he and his newspaper are on to a major and important story. But it should also be said that most others journalists who know the field disagree, at least with his interpretation, emphasis and contextual reporting.

For more on the contents of The Australian’s campaign, and what I, The Sunday Age, Hedley Thomas and Media Watch have said about it, see here and here and here and here. Now the whole thing is due for another airing. Watch this space.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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